ON FASHIONABLE DESPAIR AND THE NARRATIVE NOVEL
It is once again the fashion to question the purpose of the novel. It always is, I guess — somewhere. Why (someone comes along and wonders) exactly why are we reading these stories about imaginary people? What is the point? Are these stories supposed teach us something about the human animal? If so, what more can possibly be learned? If on the other hand (our questioners may continue) we’re just entertaining ourselves, wouldn’t we be better off going to the movies? And (I might myself add) if we’re looking for a shortcut to some hair-tingling ineffability, isn’t music a more direct means? Or if we want human connection, shouldn’t we try talking to our friends or our children – or, heaven forbid, our parents? Really, isn’t the world in so much trouble that we ought to set aside such inefficient means of delivering meaning? Do we really need narrative fiction anymore to tell us what’s important about ourselves, or to describe to us the direness of our collective situation? Don’t we need something new, different, something more to the point?
To be fair, I think this is not only a familiar question but a serious one. I have a hunch that the current expression of this concern arises from a feeling of worried urgency, if not actual panic. Life is too short, we fear, or too uncertain, to engage in such indirect exercises. And I think it’s reasonable, these days, to think this way. Having just read (or rather, having deep-skimmed before passing it wordlessly to the wife) Bill McKibben’s terrifying Eaarth, I too wonder whether it’s a wise idea to spend even one more minute reading yet another narrative novel, in which imaginary people are set in motion doing imaginary things. Reading this kind of fiction can seem a criminally frivolous pastime given the level of crisis that is obvious everywhere. If, as McKibben tells us, atmospheric CO2 counts are soon to be double the level that can sustain civilization, surely that’s the more important matter. Surely if we’re going to be reading imaginary stories at all we should be reading novels only for a brief, hard-earned escape or for their utility value – for practical information about the operation of the human animal, I suppose – rather than for the sort of content narrative novels are uniquely good at delivering – which is something like the representation, through the mechanism of story, of the ineffable workings of the human mindscape. In a time of justifiable panic, this intricate, culturally-determined practice may be considered a most incidental art. And art, of course, rarely survives the survivalists.
As it happens, I write from – and live in – a position of half-confirmed despair. I worry humanity is close to having run its course. We seem to be lousy creatures from at least a moral standpoint if not a biological one. Much as I’d prefer not to think so, it does appear that as a species we’re more bad news (for ourselves and for our planet) than good. The obvious and thrilling ingenuity and loveliness of certain of us often appears to be outweighed by the stupidity, willful ignorance, short-sightedness, cruelty, and laziness of all the rest of us. Ruling out alien intervention or some spectacular technological surge, it seems evident our species will not survive in the long term at the levels we’re now living, and if it seems unlikely (and even unfair) to imagine oneself living at the peak of any civilization about to collapse, we can remind ourselves that most individuals in a civilization will live at its peak because that’s just the point at which it can sustain the largest number of individuals. If, as it increasingly appears, we are doomed, we’re doomed because we’re a beast whose unusual powers and influences, in becoming delocalized, have become disastrous. One would not be ill-advised to begin looking for arable land for sale in the interior, away from rising sea levels, with a reliable groundwater source, and I happen to know of three places within five miles of my desk where I can learn to shoot a gun. Surely fifty years from now the last thing on my mind (assuming I still have one) will be the convincing rendering of an imaginary human via the medium of words on a page.
So I am no stranger to despair.
On the other hand it might also be argued, notwithstanding our current circumstances, that a certain existential-grade despair is all too familiar to any serious novelist. Why am I doing this? is a cry every novelist will issue at some point during the otherwise workmanlike wattling-and-daubing of a novel. Why am I trying to make imaginary people produce meaning? we ask ourselves, sighing our heads forward onto the keyboard. No matter how practiced we are, it can seem damnedly difficult to make people’s stories add up to anything important. This truth is made agonizingly more plain by the interesting discovery that the mere act of writing, after a certain level of competence is reached, is not the problem. Writer’s block is, for the most part, a myth perpetrated by the lazy and bought into by those driven by psychology to self-destruction. Just writing is cussedly simple. (Look at how many people do it.) Writing decently isn’t much harder. Plotting is often a cold-blooded exercise. A competent writer can, with a minimum of pain, arrange the levers and pulleys that compose a sturdy (or a suitably unsturdy) storyline. A descriptive passage can be reduced to a formula that goes: thing + thing + thing = a character feeling something that is a mental derivative of these elements and that advances the character and plot by some increment. Dialog can be subjected to the scrutiny of what we might call the “visual ear,” i.e., what something looks like it sounds (which is often different from how it actually sounds out loud). Even the construction of convincing characters can be accomplished with the assignment of a certain twist of thought, a peculiarity of voice, a useful history, a plausible tendency to do the thing one would not usually be expected to do…these are all straightforward reifying measures, and to one degree or another they are the old tricks we (weary and a little shamefaced) pass on in writing program classrooms. The problem may arise when we attempt to force these capably engineered parts to produce something beyond themselves, some kind of “meaning,” which we hope may reward the effort of the reader of serious fiction – a reader who, given his many other pressing concerns, may be on the hunt for something concrete and useful to take away from whatever he reads.
But I think this is a mistaken way of proceeding. The deepest purpose of any fiction, any novel, is to be found not in its content – not revealed at some epiphanic conclusion, not thematically embedded in the narrative machinery in some encoded fashion — but in the form of the work itself. The deepest purpose of the traditional narrative novel is its reasonably faithful depiction of imaginary people doing imaginary things. That’s the unfashionable reason most people read, after all – to follow along with some imaginary people as they go about their invented lives. And why? Because – happily for the future of our species – the human animal possesses, along with its fierce drive for self-preservation, a helplessly biological tendency to empathize with others of its species, even when those others are imaginary beings. We should take some comfort from the fact that this is why most people read, in fact – not to discover some kind of useful meaning but to observe, at the ideally illuminative distance that fiction offers, and with the help of the superlatively able guide to human nature that an author ought to be, the ways people actually behave – how they sweep the floor, think about their children, want something and get it or don’t. We enjoy, as a species, this kind of empathetic work, and we enjoy it because it comes naturally to us. We’re one of the few species on the planet (along with certain whales and apes) to feature mirror neurons in our brains – cells whose function is to help us comprehend what other members of our species are doing and why. We have evolved not only to look out for ourselves, but to wonder why other people are doing the things they’re doing. We can’t help it. It’s what we do. Do we often use this skill to manipulate others, or to create an advantage for ourselves? Of course. But this fact of our biology is also at the root of every act of empathy and every stroke of unlikely altruism. And if we have to wonder whether altruism is really all that important to us as a species, think of what we mean by “hero” – someone who risks his life to save someone else. Or think of the central story of western culture — a story of self-sacrifice in service of the greater good. The empathic instinct is permanently rooted in our understanding of what it means to be fully human – which is why, when we read about people doing recognizably human things, our instinct to identify with other people moves us to feel this experience as meaningful, even if there’s no concrete “takeaway” – nothing as clumsily useful or concrete as a lesson we might point to. It’s why good literary novels strike most of us as fundamentally more sustaining than dumb potboilers.
And this is why I think the kinds of stories we need the most now are the ones that bring us most completely into the minds of people as they go about their daily, apparently unmeaningful lives. We need stories that maximally activate our compassionate instincts. As I see it, serious narrative novels are among the very few artifacts that can effect a net increase in the amount of empathy in the culture. Narrative novels offer an opportunity to be concerned about other humans whom it is impossible to manipulate or from whom it is impossible to gain any advantage. In the pages of a narrative novel, we can practice the vanishing art of giving an unselfish damn. If the attraction of such art is continues to wane, we may be in more trouble than we know. After all, the urge to buy safe acres in Kentucky is a profoundly unempathetic urge. It’s the get me out of here urge. It’s the we’re on our own urge. However justified it may be, it’s the urge that’s going to doom us just as surely as elevated levels of atmospheric carbon will. Because our problems are too big, as we now understand, to fix on an individual basis. If we’re going to survive, it’ll have to be a group effort.
In the six years of writing The Unfixed Stars, about the unlikely discovery of Pluto in 1930 by the farmboy Clyde Tombaugh, I had plenty of occasions, and indeed plenty of the novelist’s usual reasons, to despair. I wanted to tell the novel from multiple points of view, from various places around the country, and the narrative stitching was laborious. Recreating the late 1920s was an effort. The many novels and diaries that I used as source material were in their own ways sustaining, in that they opened surprising vistas of a certain human continuity. Before writing The Unfixed Stars, I had no idea Ring Lardner had his Mozartian ear for comic timing, or that John O’Hara was such a gleefully sad bastard. Clyde Tombaugh’s own remarkable story, and the tales of the astronomical weirdos and strivers who surrounded him, were instructive. But the books that bolstered me during the predictable periods of writerly despair weren’t novels about astronomy, or historical-novels-told-from-multiple-points-of-view, but books that demonstrated the worthwhileness of the narrative project itself and did so by depicting imaginary people as closely and as faithfully as the form allowed. There were many of these, but the books I took most solace from tended to be those whose protagonists resembled not only certain humans I know (or am) but also resembled in some nontrivial fashion the human species as a whole: striving, stupid, hapless, and full of occasional sweet glory – in sum, people who seemed so comprehensively real my biology insisted I care about them. These characters lived in William Maxwell’s The Folded Leaf, Alice Munro’s Hateship Friendship Courtship Loveship Marriage, Kingsley Amis’ Lucky Jim, Louis Begley’s About Schmidt, and Richard Yates’ Revolutionary Road (among many others). Jim Dixon, Albert Schmidt, Limey Peters, Alfrida, April and Frank Wheeler, all offered themselves as damaged and sometimes exasperating figures who, in their ferocious flawed reality, demanded my interest. During the writing of The Unfixed Stars, I thought I was turning to these reliable volumes for some echo of prose that would be clarifying or otherwise helpful. In fact, I was turning to them because they offered solutions to the problem of despair. Yes, these books propose, the human animal is a desperate, pathetic creature who we might wisely want nothing to do with. And yes, they further propose, he is worth our effort, because our inborn instinct to care about other people finally overcomes our urge to save ourselves alone.
And of course there is no saving oneself alone any longer. In order to save ourselves, we have to save everyone. If we’re to go on, if we’re to survive, we have to start by insisting on this optimistic proposition, as difficult – and indeed as risky – as it might be.